CW’s Black Lightning may be its latest comic book-inspired series, but these protagonists are nothing like their predecessors. The TV show made its debut in January with over 2 million views, critical acclaim, and social media buzz around its bold racial/social injustice commentary. Cress Williams portrays the titular character—a Black metahuman named Jefferson Pierce—who can generate and control electricity. Pierce retired from the vigilante life nine years ago following a separation from his wife Lynn. He’s a principal at Garfield High School and a peaceful presence in Freeland—a city being terrorized by a gang called the 100. The Black community in Freeland views him as their “Black Jesus,” which adds to his determination to make a positive impact on his students. He is also the proud father of Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain).
Jefferson juggles the pressures of his community reputation and conflicted feelings about his powers. He wants to be normal and rekindle his marriage, but he also knows the incredible impact he makes as Black Lightning. He understands Freeland’s frustration and pain because he has lived the experience. The show’s pilot, “The Resurrection,” shows how his social status doesn’t necessarily protect him from police harassment. He is pulled over on a rainy night and forced out of the car because of his resemblance to a random robbery suspect. This causes his powers to flare, which he quickly controls. But his daughters eventually become the ultimate catalyst of his decision to return as Black Lightning. The girls know about Black Lightning, but they don’t know his identity…yet. Anissa and Jennifer are vital to the show’s budding storyline. They are bringing a heightened level of Black female representation in the superhero arena.
The Pierce daughters seem to have it all, at least from an external view. They have successful, loving and supportive parents who put their differences aside to co-parent. The family has refreshingly open conversations, including a scene where Jennifer informs her parents she's ready to have sex. They're also gorgeous, intelligent and accomplished young women.
Oldest daughter Anissa is a medical student, activist and part-time teacher at Garfield who is fed up with police brutality and corrupt gangs. She takes a hands-on approach to dangerous situations and reminds her father that little has changed despite years of Black peaceful protest. Every MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer quote from Jefferson is met with Anissa’s rebuttals about everyone being “sick and tired” of no results. She’s the quintessential older sister—a bit overbearing and fiercely protective of her younger sibling Jennifer. Their relationship can be argumentative, but there is love and respect amongst the pair.
Jennifer is a high school scholar who feels stifled by her father’s reputation. She is a gifted track star and has been dubbed the “Queen of Garfield” by classmates, but she rejects the expectation to be a “model citizen” in favor of partying with her friends. Jennifer is a “typical” teen in many ways—testing her boundaries, smoking a little weed, lying about a party, gushing about Afropunk, and flirting with guys.
That being said, she’s not afraid to stand firm and speak her mind. Her rebellious, outgoing spirit inadvertently traps her in a sticky situation with Will, a guy fresh out of jail and back into trouble. He works for LaLa, a member of the 100. After being confronted by LaLa, Will quickly offers her sexually to pay off a debt. Their willingness to force Jennifer into sexual servitude is a haunting reality for thousands of sex trafficking victims, many of whom are youth of color. Jennifer is livid and tells LaLa she is not Will’s girlfriend, nor is she available to sell. She also responds with a swift knee to Will’s groin before she escapes. It is the first of many situations where Jennifer's strong sense of self and confidence shines.
Anissa and Jennifer are metahumans like their father, but they have yet to fully explore their powers. The show will eventually reveal their super alter-egos, aptly called Thunder and Lightning. A series featuring two young Black superheroine sisters is a major representation win for DC Comics. So far they are setting a high bar for how these characters should be executed. Anissa and Jennifer are complex people who are given an ample amount of screentime to build their individual character arcs. Their interactions with each other and general dialogue make sense for their characters because one of the writers shaping their story is Mara Brock Akil: a Black woman who crafted successful woman-centric, Black shows like Being Mary Jane, The Game, and Girlfriends.
Anissa’s character is multi-layered; as a lesbian Black woman who is fighting for justice in her community, she's the fictional reflection of women like queer #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Patrice Cullors and Alicia Garza. A lesbian superheroine is a novel TV concept, but Black Lightning doesn't center her entire story on her sexuality. It is a part of who she is, but it neither defines her nor is it "taboo" amongst her loved ones. Jefferson and Lynn casually mention her girlfriend to one another as well as others, and no one bats an eye. Later, Anissa meets Grace Choi (a character with an established history in the comics) and they share a spark that she lacked with her current girlfriend, causing a breakup. Her relationship drama takes a back seat to her newfound super strength. Like her father, Anissa’s powers have been triggered by intense trauma.
It starts when Will shows up at Garfield to confront Jennifer. Anissa steps in, asking him to leave, and effortlessly subdues him after he grabs her arm. This leads to them being at odds with their father, who worries about the ramifications of Anissa’s actions. His suspicions are right when Will kidnaps and holds them hostage at a local motel. Lala shows up and he is furious. He requests their deaths despite his reverence for their father. This violent encounter haunts Anissa after they are rescued by Black Lightning, and the resulting trauma causes her to shatter a bathroom sink.
Anissa’s scientific mind and her newfound super-strength are a fascinating combo. Most people would be terrified after throwing a robber across two drugstore aisles, but she is curious and fascinated by her capabilities. The future Thunder practices kicking an old dryer in a junkyard while filming her experiments and observing her breathing patterns. Anissa is her own test subject with a relentless determination to find the source of her strength.
The kidnapping incident, among others, gives thought-provoking insight into Anissa and Jennifer’s place in society. They sit at the cusp of economic/social (to an extent) privilege afforded to them by their father as well as the injustice they face being Black girls. Anissa’s activist arrest in the pilot is quickly solved because of her father’s friendship with the police inspector. The police department swiftly jumps on investigating their disappearance for the same reason. This doesn't happen with countless other girls in their city. Even LaLa tells Will he should have left them alone because they aren’t “ordinary” girls. After Black Lightning rescues them, other parents begin to wonder why their daughters weren’t defended the same way. Yet Anissa and Jennifer are called bitches, dehumanized, and almost killed because Black women and girls’ lives are not valued.
Jennifer hasn’t unlocked her powers yet, but she briefly turns to drinking after the kidnapping incident. She finds solace in Khalil, her longtime friend-turned-boyfriend who dreams of using his sports talents to leave Freeland. He calls her out on her unhealthy coping method and encourages her to keep pushing forward. Jennifer says she sees the world differently, which will be her catalyst toward fighting against the 100 once she discovers her powers. That point is driven home further in episode three when Khalil is shot and possibly paralyzed at a counter-rally against the 100. The shooting forces Jennifer to grow up and face a brutal reality. It will be intriguing to see a teenage girl navigate her coming-of-age journey while learning how to hone her electromagnetic powers as Black Lightning moves forward.
Black girl protagonists are already taking over the Marvel universe with characters like Lunella Lafayette and Riri "Ironheart" Williams. Now, Anissa and Jennifer Pierce will give DC fans live-action heroines. It’s a sorely-needed area of representation for young girls who want to see relatable protagonists.
The journey from three separate heroes coping with social injustice to a family trio fighting to make Freeland live up to its name is a masterful work in progress. Jefferson Pierce may be hiding his secret identity from his daughters, but he has prepared them for their destiny. Anissa and Jennifer have prowess in hand-to-hand combat, keen intelligence, and an innate ability to think quickly in situations. They have been raised to speak up for what they believe in and fight when talking won’t solve the problem. Once they come together as superhumans, The "Daughters of Lightning" will be unstoppable.